Fracture and Polarization in the EU

Fracture and Polarization in the EU

With just six out of twenty-eight EU member states having nominally left-wing governments, the left needs to consolidate and build coalitions both nationally and at the European level.

Frans Timmermans of the Dutch Labour Party, which made unexpected gains in the European elections, with Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken/Wikimedia Commons)

The European parliamentary election results mark the end of the great postwar centrist condominium. For the first time in the forty-year history of the parliament, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D) won less than half of the 751 seats in the legislature. In Anton Jäger’s sharp assessment, “politically, Europe’s twentieth century seems dead and buried.”

But beyond this result, which came with relatively high voter turnout (51 percent), the implications of the election are less clear. Many commentators have declared the greens, liberals, and the far right the big winners, and there also seems to be agreement that left populism is a spent force. But the outcomes of twenty-eight different national polls are diffuse; interpretations of the results are an extension of politics, rather than a reflection on it. As Cas Mudde has pointed out, “it was the political elites that made the populist radical right the dominant force in the political debate.” A disproportionate focus on the far right produced “surprises” when the nationalists’ gains were not as big as expected.

Election results in the Benelux countries provide an illustrative sample of the many different outcomes across the continent, with a win for Flemish nationalists and growth for socialists and greens in Belgium, social democrats gaining first place in the Netherlands alongside a substantial far-right vote, and Christian democrats and liberals retaining their dominant position in Luxembourg. These national polls had European stakes: two of the lead candidates put forward by the European Parliament parties for the presidency of the European Commission came from the Netherlands (Frans Timmermans for S&D and Bas Eickhout for the Greens) and one from Belgium (Nico Cué for the Party of the European Left). These candidates are referred to as Spitzenkandidaten, but their legitimacy is contested by national leaders who insist on the treaty rights of European heads of government to fill key EU posts behind closed doors.

In the Netherlands, the ruling conservative liberals faced off a challenge by the country’s most recent nationalist formation, FvD. Prime Minister Mark Rutte chose to confront FvD’s bumptious leader, Thierry Baudet, in a last-minute television debate. The ensuing right-wing race to the bottom on migration framed expectations to such an extent that the victory of Timmermans’s Labour Party came quite unexpected. A charismatic polyglot and consummate orator, Timmermans has been Vice President of the European Commission since 2014 and is one of the most influential policymakers in Brussels. His gains, in part due to an energetic campaign, were a welcome respite for Dutch social democrats, who remain weak at the national level in part due to their acquiescence in years of austerity. The question for the Dutch left is whether a dynamic alternative to right-wing dominance can be constructed by the various opposition parties in The Hague. Much will depend on how the Labour Party and the increasingly powerful Greens can cooperate with more Euroskeptic left parties such as the Socialists and the Party for Animals.

Moreover, it is unclear whether Timmermans’s savoir-faire in Brussels will achieve any progressive change at the European level. As an aspiring commission president, he has held out the possibility of a broad European Parliament coalition composed of the social democrats, Greens, the liberal ALDE group, and the Party of the European Left against the EPP and the far right. The problem is that this proposed left-liberal bloc would, as it stands, get only 363 seats, 13 short of a majority. Yet internal divisions among the conservatives and Euroskeptics make coalition building on the right spectrum of the parliament equally daunting.

Tendencies toward fracture and polarization were most in evidence in Belgium, where elections were held not just for the European Parliament but also for Belgium’s three regional parliaments (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels) and its national legislature. The incumbent nationalist party N-VA lost votes to the more vitriolic far-right nationalist party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), which swept into second position both in Flanders and nationally. By contrast, the Belgian Greens and the radical Workers Party of Belgium did well in Brussels and in traditionally left-leaning Francophone Wallonia, where the Socialists remained the strongest party. This has deepened a quandary at the national level, as rural Wallonia and multicultural Brussels lean left-green while rich and populous Flanders is now a nationalist stronghold. (Another fault line of European politics that Belgium showcases in miniature is that of fiscal transfers; Wallonia and Brussels would be in financial trouble without Flemish tax revenues.) The only obstacle barring the formerly separatist Flemish right from successfully recasting themselves as federal nationalists, as Matteo Salvini’s Lega has done in Italy, is Belgium’s byzantine coalition formation process.

Similar negotiations seem likely to govern the selection of European offices due for new appointments this year. In the new European Parliament, no single party will be immediately able to secure its preferred candidates for the presidencies of the European Council and the Commission or for the head of the European Central Bank. EPP candidates are less likely than before to capture more than one of these positions, as they had in the past. An intergovernmental carve-up appears more plausible, and here Europe’s leading liberals­—Rutte, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and the Danish ALDE figurehead Margrethe Vestager—may play a key role. After his disappointing two-year courtship of German chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron is now attempting to form a broader alliance of European reformists, and seems to enjoy support among social democrats like Spain’s Pedro Sánchez and Portugal’s António Costa.

Rutte and Macron have opposed the Spitzenkandidat system, arguing instead that national political leaders should directly appoint the heads of the major EU institutions. Their stance deepens the EU’s tendency to work along intergovernmental lines, instead of making its leading positions responsive to the results of direct elections. It would in effect affirm that only national democracy is legitimate and important, casting the European Parliament as secondary. This intergovernmental Europe does not currently favor the left: just six out of twenty-eight member states have nominally left-wing governments (and only the Portuguese, Swedish, and Spanish cabinets are in any sense progressive). The left will thus have to consolidate and build coalitions both nationally and at the European level. Last week’s elections made the far-right bloc led by France’s National Rally and Italy’s Lega, the so-called European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN), the fourth-largest party in the European Parliament. Without a two-pronged national-European strategy, left-wing parties will find themselves hemmed in by two competing versions of a “Europe of nations”: one an unaccountable and crisis-ridden process of elite bargaining, the other a carnival of brutal chauvinists.


Nicholas Mulder is a historian of modern European politics and economics (@njtmulder).


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